The title of Thus Bad Begins, Javier Marías’ challenging new novel, comes from Act III of Hamlet: “Thus bad begins, and worse remains behind,” or, in other words, the current situation may be dire, but worse is to come. The Prince of Denmark’s preceding line is, “I must be cruel only to be kind.” As in the play, there’s cruelty in this book, and, like Shakespeare, Marías is canny enough to ask, is malice ever justified?
The narrator, Juan de Vere, recounts the brief time in 1980—five years after the end of the Franco dictatorship—when he was the 23-year-old live-in amanuensis to film director Eduardo Muriel. After Juan had been in the older man’s employment for a while, Muriel made an unusual request.
He asked Juan to spy on Jorge Van Vechten, a 60-year-old pediatrician who, despite having served on the Nationalist side during the Spanish Civil War, earned a reputation as a caring doctor who tended to everyone, even those subject to reprisals after the war.
Muriel wanted Juan to invite Van Vechten out at night and introduce him to women. He didn’t explain his reasons, except to tell Juan that Van Vechten “behaved in an indecent manner towards a woman, or possibly more than one.” Juan soon suspected that this hint related to another of the novel’s many mysteries, Muriel’s brutal treatment of his 40-year-old wife, Beatriz.
Thus Bad Begins is less focused than The Infatuations, Marías’ 2013 masterpiece, but it’s a satisfyingly enigmatic work that dares to ask: What’s the point of setting a record straight if the truth “gives the lie to everything that went before”? This being a Marías novel, there are no easy answers, and that’s as it should be. As Juan says, “The past has a future we never expect.”